Blogs > Nascar: Beyond the Track

Find out what's really going on in NASCAR. Look here to find out why your driver really lost his ride, or the real reason those two drivers can't stand each other. Learn about the hidden motives and reasons for the things that happen in NASCAR, from the drivers to the team owners.

Monday, December 29, 2008

I once cursed his name, but Evernham deserves respect for dominant stint at Hendrick

With his office reportedly all cleared out, Ray Evernham is on his way out of the team ownership business and will move on to new ventures such as owning a dirt track.

Newer fans probably know him as a TV commentator and co-owner of the Gillett Evernham team, which has seen some success with Kasey Kahne in recent years, but overall has struggled since debuting in 2001.
But when the history books are written decades from now, this decade of team ownership will be but a mere blip in Ray Evernham’s biography, and the rest will be devoted to his time as crew chief for Jeff Gordon.

Just thinking about that era brings me flashbacks of the intense hatred I had for this man in the late 1990s, as he was guiding the damn near unbeatable Jeff Gordon to race win after race win, and championship after championship.

At the time I began watching NASCAR, I instantly loathed everything relating to Hendrick Motorsports. Owner Rick Hendrick had just pleaded guilty to mail fraud related to shady business dealings at his Honda dealerships, and would have gone to prison for a year had he not been sick with leukemia. Instead, he spent a year on house arrest and wasn’t allowed to have any involvement with his auto dealerships or race team.
I wasn’t about to root for a criminal like Hendrick or anyone who raced for him in a criminally funded organization. As a side note, I still think it‘s ridiculous that Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2000 … I‘m guessing Hendrick used the fact he was sick to guilt Billy into giving him the pardon.

But that’s a whole different tangent. Getting back to Evernham, during the second half of the 1990s, Jeff Gordon was an unstoppable force in a Hendrick car and the mastermind behind his success was Ray Evernham. Even Chad Knaus and his masterful efforts as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in recent years can’t match what Evernham and Gordon did a decade earlier.

Every time I would go to a race during this time span, there was about a 60 percent chance I’d be seeing a Gordon victory due to Evernham’s brilliant setups and decision-making, Gordon’s talent and strong Hendrick equipment -- the combination of which had taken the sport by storm.

My eyes would get blood-red with anger as I saw that rainbow car cross the finish line first (or pretty close behind) week after week. I cursed the names of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham so often that a week in a confessional booth wouldn’t be sufficient to describe it.

But despite all this, as I look back, I harbor no ill will toward Evernham, or Jeff Gordon for that matter. Just as I can appreciate the ability of Chad Knaus today, looking back years later I recognize that Evernham made excellent decisions for his driver each week and could set up and adjust a car better than most crew chiefs who have ever sat atop a pit box. Likewise, despite all my displeasure at his past success, I recognize Jeff Gordon is a talented driver and probably would have won a lot of races even if he didn’t race for a criminal.

While my dislike of the man in charge still persists, I can say I’ve moved past disliking each and every one of his employees by extension. And despite the many names I’ve called him in the past, I’ll be the first to say that Ray Evernham should be remembered as one of the greatest crew chiefs in the sport’s history.


Anonymous Ed said...

Matt, I think "struggle" is the most overused word in the racing lexicon by journalists. Most have no idea what "struggling" is. I take issue with your characterization of Evernham racing "struggling" from 2001. I would be so bold to say that the performance of Evernham and GEM racing hasn't attained the level Evernham or Gillette wants but to say they have struggled since 2001 just isn't so. Struggled for the last two years, maybe. But a whole bunch of Cup cars and teams have attained that label.

Lookit, it took Roush years for his second team to win. It took a while for Childress to get his second team a win, then the third team was the same. Evernham has had a lot of success: Kahne had 6 second-places finishes in his rookie year in 2004, won in 2005, had a breakout year in 2006 with 6 wins, a lackluster 2007 and then won again in 2008. Bill Elliott took Evernham to Victory Lane the first year he was in bidness, then twice in '02 with that great Brickyard win, won again in 03 and nearly won Homestead again but for a flat tire. The 19 car had a win in 04 and 05. The car might have won in 01 and 02 if it had a mature driver. Casey Atwood was out of his league. Jeremy Mayfield is like a Sadler, just so so...So if the 19 car had a racer like Elliott or Kahne it surely would have visited Victory Lane more times than it has. The 10 car never got out of the starting gate and has "struggled" since inception. But Evernham "struggled overall since 2001"? Naa. Didn't happen.

Sometimes journalists take the easy way out. It's a way to tell a story in a few words that shortcuts the truth. You didn't do it on purpose mind you, at least not in my opinion. But it just does the story injustice.

December 30, 2008 at 2:45 PM 
Blogger Matt Myftiu said...

Perhaps I was a bit simplistic in just saying the team has struggled, Ed

When I say struggle, what I mean is the GEM team has not been able to catch up to the top-level teams as far as consistency and competing for titles. Elliott and Kahne did well, but never really competed for any titles. Kahne, the team's best driver so far, has hot streaks then does terrible for several weeks.

So I don't deny the team has had some success and gotten several wins, but it never has reached the level that it probably should have after eight years with a guy as smart as Evernham at the helm. Perhaps that has something to do with their choice of manufacturers, as the Dodges have never really done that well in Cup as far as competing with the Hendrick Chevys or the Roush Fords.

December 30, 2008 at 4:08 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm the sort of person who believes what goes around comes around. Rick Hendrick has paid a huge price for his behavior, if one believes that sort of thing. His cancer and the loss of close members of his family put him in a group of people I hope never to be part of. Since you are so adamantly hating law-breaking, you no doubt feel the same way about anyone in NASCAR who cheats when setting up a racecar. Many people who commit crimes never go to jail because of their money or whatever. That's just the way of it. Get over it.

December 30, 2008 at 7:39 PM 
Blogger Matt Myftiu said...

As far as the personal tragedies, I take no pleasure in Rick Hendrick being sick or his family members dying in accidents. On those topics, he has my sympathy as I am not the type of person who enjoys the misery of others.

My dislike of him is purely on the professional side. It's like someone who dislikes Pete Rose because he bet on baseball while playing/coaching ... perfectly reasonable. The results of his career are tainted in both instances.

And as far as being "over it," I am. I just choose not to root for him because of the way he made his money. There's no law saying I have to like the guy.

And just so you don't think I'm only picking on Hendrick, I'm also very disappointing in Tony Stewart for linking up with another admitted criminal owner -- Gene Haas -- for his new team.

December 30, 2008 at 9:34 PM 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home